Negotiating with Henry Kissinger and his legacy
I was writing my column today about the Israel-Hamas cease-fire when I heard the news that Henry Kissinger had died at the age of 100. For a media company like ours, which focuses on geopolitics, Kissinger is one of the most defining, controversial, and complicated figures of the last century.
It is hard to find anyone who has worked seriously on politics or studied foreign affairs who has not had an encounter with or held a view of Henry Kissinger. Statesman. War criminal. Genius. Failure. You name it, the allegations have been thrown at him. Kissinger embodied the possibilities and the perils of power. You will hear the debate over his legacy play out – as it has been playing out for decades – in the days and weeks to come. But the first thing you have to know about him is this: Everything and every moment with Kissinger was a negotiation. Including his legacy.
I experienced this the first time I met him.
It was April 2003, and I was in New York at Dr. Kissinger’s office to interview him for the weekly CBC TV show I hosted at the time, “Hot Type.” I would do hour-long, sit-down interviews with thinkers, writers, and leaders. Our team had tried to get the interview with Kissinger for two years, first because he had much to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were then raging, but also to get him to respond to the best-selling, eviscerating critique of his life written by Christopher Hitchens in the book, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” It demanded a response.
Hitchens, a brilliant writer who marshaled language as a weapon to combat Kissinger’s bombs, was a regular on my show who argued strenuously that Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal. “I have never been more serious,” he said, as he took a drink. We always had a drink handy during Hitchens interviews because he insisted on having a Scotch and an ashtray before deploying his thoughts. “We have the evidence.” Hitch went on to present it all, from the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia to what he said was one of Kissinger’s worst but almost ignored alleged crimes. “In his capacity as national security adviser, Henry Kissinger arranged for the murder of a military officer in Chile, Raul Schneider, head of the Chilean armed forces general staff.” Hitch took a puff of smoke and went on: “You may have heard this expression lately in America, that there should be a proper, orderly transition of power. Well, because of Nixon, people didn’t want an orderly transition of power, and it fell to Kissinger to have Schneider removed, so he commissioned a hit on him.”
The events Hitch described bear repeating. On Oct. 22, 1970, CIA-backed militants shot Schneider point blank as he traveled to work. They didn’t kill him immediately, but Schneider died three days later. Declassified documents from the National Security Archive make it impossible to overestimate how involved Kissinger and the CIA were in this assassination and the subsequent coup that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean leader Salvador Allende. It was part of the secret CIA plan called “Operation FUBELT,” which irrefutably laid out everything Hitch argued (read more about it here, if you want). In 2001, Schneider’s family actually brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Kissinger, but it was tossed out of court because the Official Act protected Kissinger from legal liability.
In any case, you can see why Kissinger was not keen on a sit-down. His legacy was, even then, so long and so vast that both supporters and detractors like Hitchens had much to put on display. Supporters often pointed to his ending the Vietnam War and the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 1973, or the “shuttle diplomacy” he did in the Middle East, or the critical role he played in bringing China into the global community. They argue – as did Kissinger in his memoirs – that he was a man of his time, a time when the fight against Communism was the dominant threat to democracy. Add in the existential threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and Kissinger believed that the US had a critical, if sometimes bloody, role to play that it could not ignore. That is the very essence of realpolitik, as he defined it. Maybe. But even his most ardent supporters – and there were many – knew that the US role in Cambodia, Chile, and Indonesia left behind hard-to-remove immoral tattoos.
Still, this was the world in which Kissinger lived, and eventually, he agreed to talk to us, and we went to his office. As we were setting up, Kissinger walked by and popped his head into the room.
He looked at me in that languorous, predatory manner of his and said, “You will have 20 minutes.”
I knew immediately that he was testing me, seeing how I would react, and I was prepared. That was his way with everyone. “Dr. Kissinger,” I said, “you like to negotiate, and I think you can do a lot better than that.”
He paused, but I could not discern any reaction. “You have 20 minutes,” he repeated, his deep, bouldery voice falling another impossible octave as he trundled off.
When he finally sat down, he stayed for an hour.
We went through as much of his career as we could – he would not talk much about the Schneider case as it was in court, but he focused a fair bit on Hitchens’ critique, trying to bat it away.
“I’m not going to go through my life answering charges that are always, almost always out of context,” he said. “I have written three volumes of memoirs which people can read, and which I think will stand the test of documents becoming available. And if there is an important discussion of an issue, I may participate in it, but I’m not going to spend my life answering Hitchens.”
I pressed him on the illegal bombing of Cambodia, which was a stain he would never erase. How did he justify the bombings? His response is something that has stayed with me ever since. Remember, from 1969 to 1973, Kissinger worked with President Richard Nixon as both national security adviser and secretary of state, and to contain the Vietcong, Kissinger orchestrated the illegal bombing of Cambodia. In those years, the US dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs on Cambodia, causing what scholars have estimated to be 150,000 deaths or more. As the Washington Post wrote today, “The scale of this bombing campaign, internally called Operation Menu, was kept secret from the American public for many decades, though leaked and declassified records have revealed that Kissinger personally 'approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids.'” Not only that, the bombing eventually led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that took place there.
But when I asked Kissinger about it, he simply said, “There were no people in those villages.”
The line haunts me. Of course, there were people there. What did he mean – that his end-justifies-the-means calculator didn’t count numbers below 150,000? Or worse, that Communist sympathizers were not considered people?
We debated the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – he was 80 then and an adviser to George W. Bush – and we talked about his opening up of China and many other more celebrated aspects of his career, until I finally asked him a more fundamental question: Do you have any regrets? I wanted to turn back to the terrible costs of war.
“You know, on the question of regret,” he said, “I – one of these days I’m going to learn a good answer to that because …”
“You don’t have any regrets?” I interrupted, still a bit incredulous. And now, he smiled.
“No, I have many,” he admitted. “But what you mean by that is moral regret. You don’t mean tactical regrets. So, we tried to think through, my associates and I, where America was back then. We wrote annual, long, reports, we spent much time, I think, on the basic strategies we developed, and … I have no…I have no regrets.”
The last time I saw Kissinger was a few months ago in New York. I was at the launch of a new book on artificial intelligence by Mustafa Suleyman, and the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, was giving the opening remarks. Schmidt had co-written a book with Kissinger in 2021 called “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future” and suddenly, as I was walking in, out walked Dr. Kissinger.
“Dr. Kissinger,” I said, but he passed silently, surrounded by people.
He was 100 and still attending book launches, writing about AI and politics and the future, advising politicians from both sides of the aisle, and right up to the very end, trundling forward, pushing ideas, and flexing his influence … with no regrets.